After Air Traffic Control IT systems went into meltdown this week – could ‘data’ alone wreck the system 250m passengers rely on for safety

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After Air Traffic Control IT systems went into meltdown this week – could ‘data’ alone wreck the system 250m passengers rely on for safety

Britain's National Air Traffic Services – or NATS for short – looks after 2.5 million flights and 250 million passengers travelling across the UK

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Britain’s National Air Traffic Services – or NATS for short – looks after 2.5 million flights and 250 million passengers travelling across the UK and North Atlantic every year.

The public-private partnership provides air traffic management for 15 of our biggest airports and the majority of planes as they travel through our airspace.

To work, its controllers rely on all airlines’ flight plans – which include arrival times, pilot information and the number of passengers – to be shared with them.

But at 8:30am on Monday, NATS has revealed – albeit rather vaguely – that its IT system received an ‘unusual piece of data’ that its software ‘didn’t recognise’.

With the system designed to ‘fail safely’, it automatically stopped receiving any new data to ensure no wrong information could be passed on to air traffic controllers.

Britain's National Air Traffic Services – or NATS for short – looks after 2.5 million flights and 250 million passengers travelling across the UK and North Atlantic every year

Britain’s National Air Traffic Services – or NATS for short – looks after 2.5 million flights and 250 million passengers travelling across the UK and North Atlantic every year

Instead, staff were forced to revert to a manual system, whereby they had to input all the flight routes themselves, which slowed the process and caused a huge backlog.

In the meantime, the automatic system continued running in back-up mode, with four hours of flight data stored to ensure the safety of all the aircraft still in the air.

It gave the engineers until 12:30pm to fix the problem – but NATS chief executive Martin Rolfe claimed they soon realised they were unlikely to repair it in time.

He said: ‘The problem was significantly different from anything we had seen before and, of course, that always raises questions as to what the cause was.’

Yet NATS has refused to reveal any further detail – aside from ruling out a cyber attack – until a full investigation has been carried out.

Reports yesterday suggestion the fault was caused by an incorrectly filed flight plan by a French airline. Aviation experts played this down.

Various other theories have been posited instead, ranging from a potential communication failure with NATS’ European counterpart Eurocontrol to a glitch that may have lain dormant in the underlying software.

Reports yesterday suggest the fault was caused by an incorrectly filed flight plan by a French airline. Aviation experts played this down

Reports yesterday suggest the fault was caused by an incorrectly filed flight plan by a French airline. Aviation experts played this down

Mr Rolfe said NATS invests £100million a year in improving its software and that the piece of the system that failed was replaced five years ago.

Professor Alan Woodward, a cyber expert at the University of Surrey, stated that the system shutting down proved it was working, adding: ‘It did exactly what it was supposed to do – it’s just unfortunate that that was also very inconvenient.’

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